Orlando Magic still learning in preseason

Pick and rolls, handoffs, down screens, basket cuts. This is certainly a different Orlando Magic team from the in-and-out, spot-up basketball played under Stan Van Gundy.

Jacque Vaughn’s motion offense continues to produce easy scoring opportunities for a variety of players in the flow of the game. On Friday night against the Indiana Pacers, it was finally enough to give the new era Magic its first victory of the preseason.

However, the Magic have chosen not to dwell on outcomes. After all, it is preseason. The wins and losses don’t count until November. Instead the team learns from each game, breaking down what worked and what didn’t work in an effort to reach their ultimate goal: improving every day. With two games remaining in the Magic’s preseason, we break down the good, the bad and the surprises.

The good

“I want to play fast. Get up and down. Have an open offense for many guys to score,” Vaughn said during training camp when asked to describe how he envisioned his offensive system.

Job well done.

All but four of the players who have seen preseason action have scored in double figures at least once. Five players are averaging 10 points or more (Glen Davis, E’Twaun Moore, Andrew Nicholson, J.J. Redick and DeQuan Jones). Three of those five are shooting at least 50 percent from the field (Davis, Redick and Jones). The other two players shooting better than 50 percent are just under double figure points, Gustavo Ayon with 9.8 points and Nikola Vucevic averaging 7.8.

Credit these numbers to the new style of Magic play. Players are getting easy looks at the basket, whether it’s because of a fast transition push by Jameer Nelson or a hard back cut in the offensive set by Ayon. The team collectively has produced 24 more assists than its opponents.

“The great thing about coach’s mindset is he’s telling us to play free,” Davis explained after the Magic beat the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night. “And when you play free with a great mindset and a great spirit, the open guy is the open guy and you pass him the ball.”    

Davis has been a notable winner in coach Vaughn’s system leading the team in scoring with 19.3 points per game. Despite all the change this offseason, Davis has seamlessly picked up where he left off last year in the playoffs. He is a force with his back to the basket, but so far this year his scoring opportunities have come in a variety of ways.

The open offense has allowed for him to get post-up touches at the elbow. His ability to hit the elbow jumper makes his defender commit to him. From there it is simply a matchup decision. If his defender is smaller, Davis backs him down for an easy lay in. If the defender is bigger, Davis uses his quickness to go around him. If the helping defenders try to double team, they’re punished with a timely basket cut at the rim.

Davis posted up at the elbow also puts foul pressure on the other team. Because of his size and his aggressive mindset, defenders have been hard-pressed to contain him. Davis’ 34 free-throw attempts are 21 more than the next-highest player, Hedo Turkoglu.  

Redick has also come alive in the motion offense. His 51.5 percent shooting has shown what happens when you create open opportunities for a great shooter. Although Vaughn’s plan was to limit the veteran’s minutes during preseason, he has found it difficult to take him out of the game.  

“He does so many things right in this offense,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn is not speaking only of Redick’s 3-point shooting, although it has been very good at 42.9 percent. Redick’s biggest contribution to this offense is the fact that he always cuts hard. Always.

Three times in the Spurs game, Redick was rewarded an open layup right over the front of the rim. When you have a guy that is as good as Redick from behind the arc and is constantly moving around, it keeps the defender honest.

The one or two times a game, the defender falls asleep, Redick makes him pay. The easy looks at the basket only help to build Redick’s confidence for when he does need to knock down a tough shot from behind the arc.

The bad

With all the new players acquired this offseason, the Magic desperately needed to build chemistry and trust as a team. But injuries have prevented them from getting most of their new pieces involved. Six players the Magic expect to make an impact this season have been sidelined this preseason due to injury.

Arron Afflalo, a shooting guard who averaged 15.2 points last year with the Nuggets, has not played in any preseason games because of a left hamstring strain. Wingman Christian Eyenga, acquired from the Lakers, has also missed all five games because of hamstring trouble.

Forward Al Harrington and Maurice Harkless have yet to participate in practice. Harkless, a rookie wingman picked up from the 76ers is sidelined because of a sports hernia. Harrington, a forward formerly with the Nuggets, is recovering from knee surgery.

Quentin Richardson, another wing, has missed valuable practice time and two games. Point guard Ish Smith, who will likely back up Nelson, is recovering from shoulder surgery and is not expected to be back on the floor until November.

When the Magic have been at their best so far this preseason, there have been at least four returning players on the court, most importantly Nelson.

In the first three games there was a direct correlation between Nelson on the court and the Magic’s success. When Nelson was in the game, the Magic built big leads only to see them all crumble when E’Twaun Moore relieved him at point.

The Magic were hoping that Moore, acquired from the Celtics, could step into a combo guard role this season. But Moore struggled with running the team in the first three losses, which caused offensive droughts and defensive collapses late in games.

Vaughn’s style of play is very point-guard influenced. First, it relies on an aggressive transition push from defense to offense. Nelson has repeatedly connected with guys for fast-break layups and even taken it coast to coast for easy lay-ins himself. The transition push is also a catalyst to their offensive set. Because Nelson pushes the ball hard, the defense is not set to guard the series of screens and cuts that follows the fast break push. Moore, however, is not as attack-minded in transition, allowing the defense to get back and get set to guard.

“The true equalizer in the game of basketball is being able to put the ball in the hole,” Vaughn said after the win against the Spurs. “[E’Twaun] can shoot the basketball. And so that’s a bonus. It’s up to us to put him in a position where his weaknesses aren’t stressed as much.”

Moore has improved at the point in the past two games. It’s no coincidence that the Magic have been able to hold on to their fourth-quarter leads to produce two wins. Vaughn credits Moore’s improvement to the hard work he’s put in after practice every day.

“I was very encouraged at his ability to get us organized,” Vaughn said. “That’s a development for him. And he’s done a good job.”

The surprises

Nobody has been a bigger surprise than undrafted rookie DeQuan Jones from the University of Miami.

Jones who was signed for training camp, is averaging 10.2 points per game, shooting 60.5 percent from the field, and has filled up the Magic highlight reels with his emphatic dunks. Jones has also played well on the defensive end with his athleticism and speed, recording four blocked shots in the game against the Pacers.

“I just want to be a high-energy guy,” Jones said, “go out there and use my athleticism to my advantage.”

Jones’ play has put the Orlando Magic in a tricky predicament. The Magic will need to cut their roster, currently at 20 players, down to 15 by the start of the regular season. Jones has certainly put himself in contention for a spot on the team.

“You come to camp to compete, and [Jones] has done that,” Vaughn said of the rookie’s effort.”We invited him and he accepted, and he has done a great job of playing the game of basketball.

“We haven’t made any cuts. That’s probably atypical to other teams in the league, but that’s OK. We’re are prepared to do what’s best for this team. We’ll get to 15 because we have to.”

One player who has secured a spot on the team is rookie Andrew Nicholson. The young forward has acquired the nickname “YMCA” because of his ordinary style of play. It may not be flashy, but Nicholson has shown poise, patience and polish way beyond his years in the post.

The rookie is averaging 11.3 points in 21 minutes per game. Against the Spurs, Nicholson missed only one shot in seven attempts. Five attempts were accompanied with crafty moves that showed off his footwork and soft touch around the basket. The other shot attempt showed a glimpse of power as Nicholson threw down a powerful dunk over his defender.

Nicholson will need to gain more weight in order to defend power forwards in the post, but the Magic know that will come with time. On offense, his skill set around the basket has been encouraging to the team. Considering that he’s only been playing basketball since high school, the Magic see a lot of upside in their rookie big man.

“Andrew is growing extremely fast.” Davis said of the young forward who will likely back him up this season. “And he’s doing it with the right mindset. When you’re doing that, big things happen.”